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Houben is working on a $211m renovation of The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington DC, US.

which her buildings are situated. Even more so when pinpointing the cultural disparities between them. A desire to create humanistic architecture by understanding the intricacies of local environments and their unique histories is evident throughout Mecanoo’s portfolio. It’s there in the cathedral-like Delft University of Technology, finalised in 1998, with its vast wall of books and climate-controlled glass facades. Less a building, more a landscape that blends into the parks and pastures that surround it. Meanwhile, Houben’s design for the Kaohsiung Centre for the Arts, in Taiwan, incorporates the local theme of Banyan trees into a huge pearly white canopy that shelters Tai Chi and stage street performers along walkways and informal spaces. In Mecanoo’s Palace of Justice in Córdoba, the spontaneous growth process of Spanish medieval cities


is a central theme, giving birth to a puzzle-like structure with fractures creating natural light and ventilation.

Lifelong learning But, of all Houben’s public institutions to date, she is best known for her design of libraries. The Library of Birmingham, completed in 2013 – and perhaps Mecanoo’s most lauded building – was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize. Awards and accolades followed. In 2014, Architects' Journal named Houben as Woman Architect of the Year. She chose to highlight the collaborative side of the industry. “Architecture is about teamwork, about being supportive and visionary at the same time. Women are especially good at that," Houben said.

On the topic of glaring gender disparities in the industry she retains a balanced view. “It has never been an issue [for me]. When I studied architecture, maybe 10 or 15% were

female students. To be honest, I didn't care, but when I became the first female professor of architecture in the Netherlands I thought it was strange, and of course, it's a very male dominated profession.”

Libraries continue to be an endless source of fascination. “I can talk about libraries all day, they're all different,” Houben says. The omission feels more like a polite warning than a boast; after all, Mecanoo’s creative director has three more of them in the pipeline. “For me they are the most important public buildings [of our time]. They really are places of lifelong learning,” she says. To that end, the 65-year-old is currently working on the New York Public Library and Tainan Public Library respectively, but also a $211 million renovation of The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington DC. The project might be her most high profile commission to

date. Aside from being a homage to the great Dr King, it was the visionary German-American Mies van der Rohe’s last building before his tragic death in 1969. “It has been my most emotional project so far. I felt like there was a lot on my shoulders, but it turned out very well,” Houben says with a smile. “I think that it will open at the end of September this year.” With a well-established reputation for designing and developing projects of this stature, it begs the question whether Houben worried by the prospect of being known as a celebrity architect. A ‘starchitect’ even. “Maybe I'm considered a starchitect, but I don't behave like one. I'm proud of that because it's not good for students who study architecture,” Houben says. “I think we are artists, but not autonomous artists. We always work with the client. If I do something for myself, that's different, but the rest: it's shaping the world. So to behave as a star architect, with a big ego. I would not advise it.”

Comparing her architecture company to “a symphony orchestra” Houben talks of Mecanoo and her clients in glowing terms. On her own legacy she is measured. A relentless focus on the here and now, she advises, is the only way of ensuring long-term satisfaction in this industry. There isn't time to dream of epitaphs. “For me, being an architect requires a desire to keep on learning,” Houben says. “The pandemic is an extremely interesting problem. Loneliness is a big issue. Inequality and the big gap between rich and poor is another. Then there’s the whole [concept] of circularity. I hope when I pass away they say that she tried to create a better world, but when I'm dead, I'm dead. To be honest, I care more about my children.”


Robert Benson

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